The poetry of pain 

Is there meaning to be found in extreme pain?

I want to dazzle your pain

so it may leap out

and begin to dance

-- Ekiwa Adler Beléndez

It isn't often you find yourself in the presence of an obvious prodigy. But such was the case last week when I attended a panel discussion at the Mythic Journeys Conference here. The topic was pain and the center of attention was Ekiwa Adler Beléndez, an 18-year-old poet from Mexico who published his first volume of poetry when he was 12.

Ekiwa has cerebral palsy and, because of radical surgeries, knows severe pain intimately. He is a mesmerizing speaker. His fingers are impossibly long -- like spider legs, he says in one poem -- and his voice is full of "amazing composure," as Mary Oliver writes in the preface to his book, The Coyote's Trace.

I attended this particular discussion because, as I've written here before, I've spent the last 16 months dealing with pain. Three unrelated surgeries, including two emergency ones, have made pain a relatively constant companion. And the pain has evoked a nagging question: "What in hell have I done wrong to go through this?"

I certainly didn't get an answer at the discussion. Coleman Barks, also on the panel, quoted Rumi, the Sufi poet whose work he is famous for translating: "Love comes with a knife." If love is inevitably painful, then life itself must be painful, as the Buddha asserts in the first noble truth.

But, I silently protested, there is the ordinary pain of existence and then there is pain of such extraordinary intensity that it seems to take you out of the world. As with depression, it's difficult to describe what relentless physical pain does to the psyche. Four months after surgery on both my knees, my pain is minimal now. When I try to remember the worst days of the pain, I draw a blank.

A friend who underwent two major surgeries two days apart when he was 12 reports the same experience. He can't remember three weeks of his life at all and, he says, "I can't even explain the pain." Another friend, who is living with fibromyalgia, says he has often prayed to die. His pain is so "beyond description" that he has a device attached to his spine that blocks nerve impulses. He regards his continued existence as something beyond explanation, too -- something of another world, like the pain itself. Ekiwa read a moving poem dictated to his father after a difficult operation to repair his scoliosis. His first response to everything is poetic. He turns to metaphor, whose virtue is that it allows one to approach the most difficult subject indirectly. We cannot exactly describe the world to which pain takes us but we can say what it resembles. "I am in the white prison/of those with disjointed feverish limbs," he told his father as he awakened from the anesthesia. At the end of the poem he claims his given name, Ekiwa, which means "warrior."

That is something I recall: amazement that I could even endure the pain. It kept me awake until I was too exhausted to stay awake, and after I slept, it returned in a variety of ways: "Is your pain unpredictable/quick and sharp like a humming bird/or slow and familiar like an old house?" Ekiwa writes in a poem to his mother.

While Ekiwa simply communicated his experience and what he has tried to make of it, others tended to engage in what another audience member called "romanticizing" and "spiritualizing" of pain. Nobody advocated the extreme position of Mother Theresa, who thought pain was ennobling. She would not permit the dying to take pain medication.

Nor was there that attitude I often encountered in the early days of the AIDS epidemic. People like Louise Hay endeavored to answer my question -- "What did I do wrong for this to happen?" -- by telling people they were suffering a spiritual malady. When one of my friends was hours from death and traveling far in that other world of profound pain, members of his support group surrounded his bed and told him his death would be a victory for "negative thinking."

There was none of that at the panel discussion. But there was the excited depiction of love's knife as a kind of instrument of surgery itself -- a tool for exposing the nexus of pain and a new consciousness. I suppose pain, randomly visiting, could potentiate a transformation, but what intensely felt event in life doesn't do that? And who says the change is always positive?

"There was nothing spiritual about my pain," says my friend who had surgery at 12, "except that I begged God not to let me die. Write this about pain: 'It hurts really bad.'"

cliff.bostock@creativeloafing.com

Cliff Bostock holds a Ph.D. in depth psychology.

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